Hollywood mini-mogul Bobby Gould has a good thing going with his promotion as head of production for a major film studio, able to greenlight any project under $40 million without answering to anybody over his typically perilous head.  This is also a boon for his longtime partner-in-crime Charlie Fox in David Mamet’s 1988 “dramady” Speed-the-Plow, a play mostly famous for the rather inauspicious theatrical debut of an international musical pop diva known only by one name.  Now in a generally snappy revival at Geffen Playhouse, Speed-the-Plow seems even more relevant today—at least here in our city so overshadowed by the churning wheels of Hollywood—than when first presented nearly two decades ago.

Jon Tenney and Greg Germann work splendidly off of one another, with Tenney’s nicely underplayed Bobby a perfect foil for the enormously physical performance by Germann as Charlie.  As Bobby furls his nostrils and drinks in the paint fumes of his impressively grand new executive office (still craftily under renovation in Robert Blackman’s appropriately Feng Shui-ed set design), Charlie paces and pounces around the leather Ikea-haute furniture as the tiger  that he is, proposing a project to his friend and mentor so foolproof that they’ll get so rich they’re “gonna hafta hire someone to help them figure out what to buy.” 


It’s a perfect relationship before the entrance of a supposedly inexperienced young office temp named Karen (Alicia Silverstone), who may or may not be as naïve as she seems.  After coming to Bobby’s home the night after her first day in his employ on an obvious pretense, Karen begins a dual-purposed seduction, offering her charms, it appears, in return for her boss agreeing to produce a risky picture based on a dryly academic and possibly science-fiction-ish tome about the dangers of global radiation.  After a night of spectacular attitude-altering lovemaking, Bobby decides to leave behind Charlie’s blockbuster project and film the book instead, much to Charlie’s chagrin. 

“It’s a summer picture, right?”  Charlie quips, thinking he’s going along with a joke, but soon the reality of the situation begins to sink in.  “Have you read this book?  Have you?” he asks Bobby incredulously.  “I’ve read the coverage,” Bobby snaps back.  “What do you want from me, blood?”  Hooray for Hollywood.

As with Madonna before her, Silverstone, so good in Mamet’s otherwise ill-conceived and poorly acted Boston Marriage at this same theatre last season, is doomed simply by playing the role of Karen.  To say Mamet doesn’t write well for women is a well-worn given, but here the problem is more apparent than anywhere else in his body of work.  As a wide-eyed, lip-chewing innocent in the first act to an instant Industry shark in the second, Karen’s emotional makeover is not in any way believable.  Throw in the characteristic inability of most actors who work primarily in movies to be able to sustain a complete character and find a transformative arc in more than briefly filmed takes, and the result isn’t pretty here. 

Why one of our most gifted theatre directors, the Geffen’s own Randall Arney, couldn’t help Silverstone through this (any more than Blackman’s glaringly obvious costuming, transforming Karen from Ugly Betty to The Devil Wears Prada in one flash of an intermission) is anyone’s guess, except that Mr. Mamet simply gives him nothing with which to work here.  Originally casting a superstar in a severely underwritten role was a bad idea 19 years ago, but Madonna’s participation in the original version of Speed-the-Plow at least took the heat off of the playwright all those years ago.  Today, particularly considering the performance of the usually quite watchable Silverstone, the problem is obviously in the writing. 

Funny, I was once part of a one-act festival that shared the bill with a play by David Mamet’s sister Lynn, a piece that showed clearly what a huge problem she had with liking men.  Wouldn’t it be interesting to time-travel back to Chicago in the 50’s and be a fly on the wall of the Mamet household as these two grew up?   I for one would love to see what made both kiddies so hard on the opposite sex.

The Geffen Playhouse is located at 10886 Le Conte Av., Westwood; for tickets, call 310-208-5454.


TRAVIS MICHAEL HOLDER teaches acting and theatre/film history at the New York Film Academy’s west coast campus at Universal Studios. He has been writing about LA theatre since 1987, including 12 years for BackStage, a 23-year tenure as Theatre Editor for Entertainment Today, and currently for As an actor, he received the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Best Actor Award as Kenneth Halliwell in the west coast premiere of Nasty Little Secrets at Theatre/Theater and he has also been honored with a Drama-Logue Award as Lennie in Of Mice and Men at the Egyptian Arena, four Maddy Awards, a Award, both NAACP and GLAAD Award nominations, and six acting nominations from LA Weekly. Regionally, he won the Inland Theatre League Award as Ken Talley in Fifth of July; three awards for his direction and performance as Dr. Dysart in Equus; was up for Washington, DC’s Helen Hayes honors as Oscar Wilde in the world premiere of Oscar & Speranza; toured as Amos “Mr. Cellophane” Hart in Chicago; and he has traveled three times to New Orleans for the annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, opening the fest in 2003 as Williams himself in Lament for the Moths and since returning to appear in An Ode to Tennessee and opposite Karen Kondazian as A Witch and a Bitch. Never one to suffer from typecasting, Travis’ most recent LA performance, as Rodney in The Katrina Comedy Fest, netted the cast a Best Ensemble Sage Award from ArtsInLA. He has also been seen as Wynchell in the world premiere of Moby Pomerance’s The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder and Frank in Charles Mee’s Summertime at The Boston Court Performing Arts Center, Giuseppe “The Florist” Givola in Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui for Classical Theatre Lab, Ftatateeta in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra at the Lillian, Cheswick in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at the Rubicon in Ventura, Pete Dye in the world premiere of Stranger at the Bootleg (LA Weekly Award nomination), Shelly Levene in Glengarry Glen Ross at the Egyptian Arena, the Witch of Capri in Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore at the Fountain, and Dr. Van Helsing in The House of Besarab at the Hollywood American Legion Theatre. As a writer, he has also been a frequent contributor to several national magazines and five of his plays have been produced in LA. His first, Surprise Surprise, for which he wrote the screenplay with director Jerry Turner, became a feature film with Travis playing opposite John Brotherton, Luke Eberl, Deborah Shelton and Mary Jo Catlett. His first novel, Waiting for Walk, was completed in 2005, put in a desk drawer, and the ever-slothful, ever-deluded, ever-entitled Travis can’t figure out why no one has magically found it yet and published the goddam thing.